Frisch Discovers That Bees Communicate Through Body Movements

Karl von Frisch discovered that honeybees returning to the hive use a so-called round dance to communicate to their comrades that food is nearby.

Summary of Event

Karl von Frisch can be credited, in part, for several lines of experimentation, such as the study of color perception in bees and hearing in fish. It was his study of communication in bees, however, that brought him world fame and, in 1973, a Nobel Prize, which he shared with Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen. Nobel Prize recipients;Karl von Frisch[Frisch]
Bees, communication
Round dance (bees)
Animal behavior
[kw]Frisch Discovers That Bees Communicate Through Body Movements (Spring, 1919)
[kw]Bees Communicate Through Body Movements, Frisch Discovers That (Spring, 1919)
[kw]Body Movements, Frisch Discovers That Bees Communicate Through (Spring, 1919)
Bees, communication
Round dance (bees)
Animal behavior
[g]Germany;Spring, 1919: Frisch Discovers That Bees Communicate Through Body Movements[04710]
[c]Science and technology;Spring, 1919: Frisch Discovers That Bees Communicate Through Body Movements[04710]
[c]Biology;Spring, 1919: Frisch Discovers That Bees Communicate Through Body Movements[04710]
Frisch, Karl von

Many observers, including the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, have noticed that when honey or sugar water is placed near a hive, it may be many hours before a wandering bee discovers the food. Once a bee discovers the food, however, hordes of bees soon descend upon the new find. Obviously, the forager bee somehow communicates information about the presence of food to other members of the hive. A few naturalists noticed the dancing movements of bees and speculated about what their meaning might be, but it remained for Frisch to perform the many years of exacting experiments that were needed to substantiate that dancing in bees is actually a form of communication.

Frisch’s autobiography recounts the experiment that led to the most far-reaching observation of his life. At the time, he was at the Munich Zoological Institute, studying bees in a queen-breeding cage, which has glass sides so that all the bees can be seen easily. Frisch put out a dish of sugar water to feed foraging bees from the little glass-sided hive. He marked the bees that fed on the sugar water with small dots of red paint. He then removed the dish of sugar water, and the bees came less and less frequently. Finally, he once again put the sugar water out and allowed a bee to feed. He watched the behavior of the bee once it returned to the hive. As Frisch recalls in his autobiography, “I could scarcely believe my eyes. She performed a round dance on the honeycomb which greatly excited the marked foragers around her and caused them to fly back to the feeding place.” When Frisch and his family moved to Brunnwinkl, Austria, he continued his studies of the round dance as a form of communication in honeybees. The results of these early studies were published in 1920.

When the dancing bee performs the round dance, it moves in a tight circle to the right and then to the left, describing between one and two circles in each direction, and repeating the turning movements for half a minute or longer. The sweeter the food source, the more vigorous the dancing becomes. Typically, a group of bees surround the dancing bee and extend their antennas over the body of the dancing bee. This behavior allows the new recruits to detect odors adhering to the dancer’s body. These odors enable the recruits to find the particular species of flower that is producing nectar at distances of up to about 50 meters (about 164 feet). During pauses in the dance, the dancer regurgitates nectar from her honey stomach and feeds the bees around her. This nectar carries the scent of the flower that was visited.

Frisch also demonstrated that bees have color vision and can learn to seek out a given color that they have associated with food. He found that bees cannot distinguish red from black and can see ultraviolet as a distinct color. The patterns of color on flowers thus appear different to bees from the way they appear to humans. Individual bees use color vision to locate flowers they have already visited, but there is no indication that they can communicate colors to other bees.

It was another twenty years before Frisch discovered the workings of the more incredible “wagging dance” that was often performed by bees returning from a distance with loads of pollen. Upon closer inspection of bees fed 400 meters (about 1,312 feet) north of their hives at Brunnwinkl in June of 1945, he discovered that this more elaborate dance communicates both direction and distance and is used for finds at more than 50 meters from the hive. The dancing bee moves in a figure-eight pattern, its movements followed by the outstretched antennae of forager bees. The greater the distance to the food, the slower the tail wagging performed by the dancing bee. If the tail wagging is in an upward direction, then the food is toward the Sun; if the tail wagging part is downward, the food is away from the Sun. The biological clock of the bee gradually corrects the dance for changes in the apparent position of the Sun.


Frisch’s publication of his 1919 observations on the round dance as a form of communication in bees did not result in either immediate fame or controversy, although eventually both would come. It was the steady stream of scientific papers on animal physiology and behavior, especially on fish and bees, that eventually established Frisch as the most widely known German biologist. By World War II, his reputation allowed him to continue his work for a time, even though his mother was in danger because she was of Jewish descent. Later, forced into isolation at Brunnwinkl, Frisch continued his research during the war years. It was there in 1943 that he discovered the importance of the wagging dance.

Frisch’s studies on the round dance honed the experimental techniques that he later applied to the wagging dance. The work with the round dance generally furthered Frisch’s reputation, and it played an important role in the development of the slowly emerging field of animal behavior. Bees, communication
Round dance (bees)
Animal behavior

Further Reading

  • Frisch, Karl von. Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses, and Language. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1950. Pocket-sized book gives a quick overview of Frisch’s honeybee research. Based on revised notes for his lecture tour of the United States in 1949. Well illustrated and presented in a simple and readable fashion.
  • _______. A Biologist Remembers. Translated by Lisbeth Gombrich. New York: Pergamon Press, 1967. A chronicle of Frisch’s long and productive life with insights into how a scientist uses experiments to test various competing hypotheses. Of great human interest because of the importance of Frisch’s family in nurturing his fascination with nature and because of the drama involved in his maintaining a professional career in Austria and Germany during World Wars I and II.
  • _______. The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. Translated by Leigh E. Chadwick. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1967. A rather technical review of Frisch’s scientific findings; filled with many diagrams and many references to the scientific literature. Best source for Frisch’s scientific papers short of reading the original German articles. Only for motivated readers who want the details of Frisch’s experimental methods and procedures.
  • _______. The Dancing Bees. Translated by Dora Ilse. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1955. One of the most readable books in English on Frisch’s research as well as the natural history of honeybees. Includes a chapter on ants, wasps, and bumblebees. Written for the layperson and filled with line drawings and photographs.
  • Gould, James L. “The Dance-Language Controversy.” Quarterly Review of Biology 51 (June, 1976): 211-244. Detailed analysis of experiments by various scientists relating to how bees communicate and find their way. Considered to be the decisive vindication of Frisch’s discovery of communication by dance in bees.
  • Gould, James L., and Carol Grant Gould. The Honey Bee. 1988. Reprint. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1995. A semitechnical survey of all aspects of the natural history of honeybees, their evolution, types of learning, communication, and navigation. A chapter on the role of dancing in communication gives a positive assessment of Frisch’s research. Includes colored illustrations and excellent lists of selected readings appended to chapters.
  • Wenner, Adrian M., and Patrick H. Wells. Anatomy of a Controversy: The Question of a “Language” Among Bees. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Presents all sides of the debates that eventually arose around the work of Frisch and other scientists regarding communication in bees. Includes references and index.

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